America as a Chosen Nation?

Plowshares

Chiam Potok, Jewish rabbi and author of The Chosen, wrestled with the deeply held belief that we’re God’s chosen people. He said the problem is that we become a “self-choosing people.” It becomes easy to forget that, as the spiritual children of Abraham and Sarah, we’re called to bless and serve the whole world. It often gets ugly. Such a religious self-understanding becomes especially dangerous when it’s linked with the ethos and ambitions of a nation-state.

Examples litter human history. Here, we will look at it through our American experience. Our national identity is born out of the revolutionary struggle for independence; we have a deeply held historical conception of our nation as a republic opposed to British tyranny and colonialism. Another strand of our American identity is rooted in the religious faith of the first settlers who saw themselves as God’s chosen people in a new world.

The notion of being a people chosen by God has injected an intense religious quality into American nationalism sometimes called “American exceptionalism.” It operates even more effectively because it is defined as secular in American liberal ideology rather than being identified with a particular religion. We try to have it both ways as seen in the notion of being a secular nation with the soul of a church.

Its most destructive features have been our pervasive militarism and aspects of our corporate economy that exploit individuals and local communities both in our country and globally. The sheer size and dominance of American military and economic power skews international relationships and threatens to undermine our democratic institutions. On the other hand, our sense of being a people of God has also informed our national social conscience and related social movements in the struggle for civil rights, freedom, economic justice, and peace. Activists like singer, songwriter Pete Seeger have tapped into this more life-giving aspect of American nationalism.

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2 thoughts on “America as a Chosen Nation?

  1. Earl, Thanks for this insightful post. I find it interesting that our national religious mythology as a chosen nation is rooted the New England Pilgrim settlements. This conveniently forgets the Catholic heritage from Spain in Florida and the Southwest, and the French (Catholic) heritage in the mid=section. These preceded the Pilgrim colonies. We also ignore the Native American religious heritage which of course was non-Christian and justifies ignoring them. Let us not forget that the non-religious and economic settlement at Jamestown. -Dennis Kuhns

    • You’re absolutely right Dennis. You may find it interesting that The first draft of my post actually contributed our mythology of being a chosen nation to the Covenant Theology of the Puritans. As I reflected on that, I became convinced that it was too narrow. Hence, I especially appreciate that you commented on that very point. Pacifist immigrant faith groups such as the Quakers and Mennonites also saw themselves as a chosen “people of God” and we might reflect on what this contributed to our American national identity.

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